The Coronavirus has thrown the business world into chaos. Over the past several months companies around the world have scrambled to create work-from-home plans, with varying degrees of success.
Some businesses were prepared. Over the past decade plus, companies have increasingly developed work-from-home options, and many companies are even based on a WFH model. A Gallup poll conducted March 12, 2020 (right around the time the Coronavirus crisis kicked in and stay-at-home orders were given), found that 43% of U.S. employees work remotely some or all of the time. What that means is that for some companies, the COVID-19 pandemic means more or less business as usual, at least when it comes to the work day.
For some who were caught unprepared, or who work in an industry for which working from home may not be natural, this has led to mass layoffs, and logistical nightmares for some others. For them, WFH means a mental and physical pivot, a reluctant shift into a newfangled way of work. And they might not even know where to begin.
For some, WFH still has a stigma, which makes things difficult when your idea of management is close supervision, and for whom “soft skills”—communication, agility, and proficiency in technology platforms among them—are a headache that just isn’t worth the effort. For them, strict monitoring and higher productivity have a directly proportional relationship, forget about all evidence to the contrary.
And now that businesses are starting to open back up, what does that mean for people who have grown accustomed to working from home? And, as we’ve already seen, what happens if there is another spike, and we are forced to shut down again?
Some workers may not even want to continue working from home. Indeed, many workers report missing the camaraderie of an office environment. And according to at least one study this year, less than half of the new employees working from home want to continue. But having at least an option to work from home, even on occasion, continues to be popular. A Pricewaterhouse Cooper study shows wide support—83%--for the ability to work at least one day from home weekly.
Why the resistance to remote work?
Most of the leading companies across industries have, where possible, instituted a work-from-home policy at least when it’s necessary. For many companies, especially those in the tech space, it’s a regular part of the business. This shift has been occurring for several years now, as our society has become increasingly mobile. Laptops, smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices have made it relatively easy.
But still there are holdouts who insist that employees come to the office every day, stay there the required 8 hours (or more as necessary), and conduct most of their business in that environment. And the question that leaps out is, “Why?”
The answer to that question can vary depending on the company, but generally tends to boil down to one of these:
Employers don’t trust their employees. Whether an overt thought, or just a belief that supervisors must be hands-on and personally ensure work gets done, there is an implicit lack of trust between management and the people they supervise.
They fear technology. Perhaps they are “old school” and don’t trust technology, or don’t understand it and don’t want to entrust their business to an IT department. Or they balk at the front-end costs of new technology, and the learning curve that comes with it.
They want to rely on “the way we’ve always done it.” Maybe things “are going just fine,” or maybe they fear the learning curve that WFH would undoubtedly come with such a transition. Stereotypes about the types of work that can or cannot be done remotely often leads to an unrealistic set of expectations and can cause issues.
They don’t understand how WFH works. A lot of companies that could be implementing remote workers often hesitate because they fear the detached nature of a remote environment will decrease production or make it more difficult to provide oversight (which is to say reducing the ability for a manager to micro-manage employees), or the front-end work necessary to institute remote work will cause logistical headaches and will require time- and cash-intensive tech upgrades.
Some executives still apparently see remote work as a fad, as a way of operating that may work for tech startups and Silicon Valley, but not for them. And in some industries (or some positions within industries) the latter may be true, but for most, that’s a cop out, an excuse for technophobia and a reliance on “what works for us” or “how we’ve always done it.”
Back in 2013, Marissa Meyer of Yahoo! famously banned remote work, seeking to improve productivity. To say it didn’t go over well is an understatement. Within a year, the New York Times reported more than a third of the company’s staff had left, and a Glassdoor survey found more than a third of respondents questioned whether the strategy was an improvement. Shareholders were not pleased, and after Yahoo!’s merger with AOL, Meyer was shown the door, and WFH was re-instituted soon after.
And to be sure, shifting to a remote model is a major adjustment. Creating a responsive technology infrastructure that enables effective remote work is complex. It often requires hiring specialists devoted to ensuring the transition is smooth, and maintaining the technology can be complicated. Indeed, it can affect the entire org chart and put new people in positions of influence. Experts say it takes 6 to 12 weeks from on-site to remote just to get a remote model up and running, and if your infrastructure is weak, you will have struggles. just to get a remote model up and running, and if your infrastructure is weak, you will have struggles.
Why is remote work attractive?
The benefits for the worker are obvious: less stress, more sleep, increased flexibility with appointments and household duties, more access to families, and more independence, to name just a few. But believe it or not, businesses benefit as well.
Remote work is cheaper. Providing workspaces for employees bring with it a lot of day-to-day expenses. Evidence suggests remote worker turnover is significantly lower and they are willing to work for less. reports $10,000 annually in savings per employee in real estate savings alone, and the insurance company Aetna reportedly saves $78 million per year by cutting office space.
Remote work is more flexible. Remote workers tend to not adhere to the typical 9-5 weekday work schedule. They often work before and after hours and on weekends, whether it’s responding to a message, attending a meeting, or knocking out project work before the crush of the day.
Remote employees are more productive. Work-from-home employees don’t commute to work, which means they can both get more rest and get started earlier in most cases. They don’t get distracted by office gossip or by co-workers. They can take breaks when they need to. Need more evidence? This 2015 study says 77% of remote workers are more productive, and are 52% less likely to take time off, even if they are sick.
Employees like remote work. Remote workers know all too well the envy they get from their brethren who work in an office: “You’re so lucky.” “THAT must be nice.” And remote employees don’t have to deal with the stresses of rush-hour traffic on a daily basis. They have increased flexibility on when they can work, and working longer hours doesn’t mean they’re away from their homes and families for additional hours of the day.
what is the future of remote work?
If there is a lesson the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it’s that businesses with the ability to be flexible with their employees, and leverage technology and modern work-from-home capabilities, are the ones that will thrive (or in some cases, survive) when we have to abandon traditional office work. And while the future of the coronavirus is uncertain as businesses begin opening back up, one thing is clear: Remote work will become much more prevalent than it already is. Over the past decade, many businesses (particularly in the tech industry, where capabilities and technical and IT skills tend to be higher), have shifted to a remote model, and when employees like it and businesses see the benefits in action, it’s going to increase.
Many people already have an increased sensitivity to illnesses and viruses. For those people, during an outbreak, remote work will provide an additional safeguard, and as COVID-19 continues in waves, it may be necessary to transition back and forth for shorter periods of time. This workplace versatility, whether real or perceived, is going to become a vital part of protecting workers going forward.
The result is an empowered employee base, a workforce given the ability and tools to do their jobs, entrusted to do their jobs and enact the company’s goals and strategies. This is tantalizing and attractive to any industry’s top talent. A solid remote infrastructure that gives employees that firmer work-life balance, saves them commute money and frustrations, and trains them on the appropriate techniques and methodologies for remote work life, will attract that talent, giving businesses who adapt to these changing realities a leg up on their competitors.
The workforce has gotten a taste of the remote work lifestyle, and more employees will begin wondering aloud why remote work isn't an option. As the expression goes, “you can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube,” and now that many have actually experienced remote work and seen that it can work for them, the demand for a work-from-home option is only going to increase.
Companies that offer work-from-home options even on a part-time basis will continue to poach highly skilled employees from those who do not. Chances are they’ll offer more money and better benefits, because of the money they’re saving on the back end. Companies who don’t keep up with the demands of their employees will soon fall behind in business.
While this is an unprecedented shutdown on a global scale, it’s easy to dismiss the notion that it will be the last shutdown of its type. There has already been rounds of opening and swiftly re-closing workforces as incidence of illness spikes. Previous medical “scares” have come and gone over the past several decades, but this one feels as if it’s a signal of things to come. Having a larger remote workforce will help tamp down the spread of viruses; why NOT have remote work as an option?
If your company resisted shifting to a remote model, but had to due to the pandemic, take this opportunity to note where you’ve been able to adapt, and where you’ve struggled. If you’re treating this as a temporary situation, be prepared to field questions from your employees as to why. If you’ve already started moving your workforce back to the office, maybe you’ve already had to answer those questions.
For sure, some employees will be itching to get out of the house, but sooner or later the allure of working from home will creep back in. For most, a remote environment is a must. For those slow adopters, it’s a prime opportunity to explore, work out kinks, and prepare for lasting changes. If you want to continue to compete for the industry’s best talent, you’re going to have to adapt.
After all, this is being called the “new normal” for a reason.
About the AuthorMore Content by Joe Shearer